June 23, 2014

On June 11, when I first entered the auditorium Paulo Kobayashi–where all the public hearings of the Comissão da Verdade of São Paulo “Rubens Paiva” are held–a small chorus and its musicians were preparing to perform. It included three female voices, two violins and a cello.

Music? I had never been to any public hearings before, but from what I had seen on the media, live music was never involved. Although the banner outside suggested that I successfully found the place (after roaming around for half an hour before locating it), I had to double check the location. I confirmed that this was indeed where the Comissão da Verdade was about to begin the public hearing concerning the fire that destroyed Vila Socó in 1984.

The Comissão Nacional da Verdade is the council in charge of investigating the many atrocities committed during the dictatorship. It was established in 2011 by Brazilian President and ex-political prisoner Dilma Rousseff. This committee, which curiously does not include a historian as a member, also exists at the state level.

I had the opportunity and privilege to participate in two public hearings of the Comissão da Verdade do Estado de São Paulo “Rubens Paiva.” Political figure Rubens Paiva, for whom the committee is named after, was tortured and killed by the military dictatorship in 1971; his body is still nowhere to be found.

Recently, Col. Paulo Malhães, ex-agent of CIE (Centro de Informações do Exército), publicly admitted his involvement with the disappearing of federal congressman Rubens Paiva. After this public hearing he was found dead under circumstances that are still unclear. Rubens Paiva’s kidnapping is part of the memoir Feliz Ano Velho (1984) written by his son, journalist Marcel Rubens Paiva who never stopped looking for the truth.

Vila Socó was a working class neighborhood in the city of Cubatão in the state of São Paulo, a thriving industrial city. The fire was caused by a leak in one of the gasoline conduct passing through the barracks that formed Vila Socó. The gas company Petrobras, for whom many of the people living there were working, never assumed responsibility for what happened. Furthermore, the dictatorship orchestrated a meticulous concealment of the bodies in order to lessen the number of deaths recorded in the official documents. The fire made the stashing of the bodies easier since they turned to ashes; but many eyewitnesses said that they saw caskets with more than one body. However, despite the attempts of silencing the truth, the wail of the victims, and especially of their families, would still echo thirty years later asking for recognition.

Poet Marcelo Ariel preparing to read. ​

Poet Marcelo Ariel preparing to read. ​

And precisely that cry was performed by the chorus in the auditorium Kobayashi, opening the public hearing, “Tragédia da Vila Socó 30 anos depois do incêndio.”

Musician Gilberto Mendes wrote the choral piece Vila Socó, meu amor – which, as the title suggests, is in dialogue with the Resnais film Hiroshima, mon amour – right after the tragedy in 1984. He wanted to make sure that what had happened that night would be simultaneously remembered and avoided in the future.

I was pleasantly surprised to see this inclusion of the arts into the world of the law. After researching more about this musical piece and Gilberto Mendes, I discovered that he has always believed in the political power of music. The chorus recites: “Não devemos esquecer os nossos irmãos da Vila Socó, transformados em cinzas, lixo em pó. A tragédia da Vila Socó mostra como o trabalhador é explorado, esmagado sem nenhum dó.” Translated, this means “We shall not forget our brothers of Vila Socó, tranformed into ashes, garbage and dust. The tragedy of Vila Socó shows how the worker is exploited, crushed without any pity. This chorus is repeated five times; Mendes says that, by keeping it forthright, he wanted to maintain the minimalism characteristic of the folkloric music. He envisions this piece performed by a feminine chorus, appointing then to women not only the more traditional role of mourners, but also the responsibility of preserving the memory, and, thus, breaking the long standing association of testimony to masculinity.

This is shown already in the etymological root of the word, since someone that gives a testimony is a testis, which in Latin also means testicle. This idea of testimony and masculinity is very much explored by professor Márcio Seligman Silva, whose research on memory and literature has been central to my intellectual development. Unfortunately, not much of his writing has been translated into English, as it is also true that among American scholars of Brazil it is very rare to employ research and ideas produced by Brazilian intellectuals. My staying in São Paulo has finally given me the opportunity to meet him and get to talk to him in person; which was one of my main goals while here in São Paulo. He was very responsive, and I am confident this connection will be longstanding.

President of the Comissão da Verdade do Estado de São Paulo Adriano Diogo and the testimonies.

President of the Comissão da Verdade do Estado de São Paulo Adriano Diogo and the testimonies.

After the chorus finished playing, bringing to life the agony of that night, the president of the commission, congressman Adriano Diogo, introduced who was going to offer his testimony in favor of reopening the case.

First, Tonico Ferreira, the reporter for Globo TV who was sent on the scene and witnessed firsthand the incompetency of the then mayor Ney Serra.

Second, Doijival Vieira dos Santos, the city councilman at the time of the fire and member of the Comissão da Verdade of Cubatão that brought to the attention of the committee the possibility that three to four corpses might have been hidden in the same casket.

Last, but not least, Luiz Marcelo Moreira, the president of the Comissão da Verdade of Cubatão and in charge of the appeal for reopening the case. His final goal is to bring the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and ask for justice for those who died and those who are still missing.

The state of Brazil has never admitted guilt, and neither did Petrobras. The tragedy of Vila Socó intertwines with the dictatorship, not only because Brazil was still a dictatorship, but also because the president of Petrobras, Shigeaki Ukei was Médici’s puppet. Shigeaki was able to get away thanks to the Amnesty Law of 1979 that condoned a tabula rasa victims and perpetrators. He lives in Texas now, doing well and as wealthy as ever, owning much of the gas produced there, second only to George Bush.

The testimonies were followed by two documentaries, “Cubatão Urgente” by João Batista Andrade, filmed right after the accident and a second one by Diego Lacerda “Uma Tragédia Anunciada.” This public hearing was a sensory overload: from the music, which beyond being utterly touching, was unexpected, just like the explosion, to the images of the dantesque scenario that was Vila Socó the morning after, images that moved from the stillness of the screen to the vividness of our minds, inhabiting it together with that chorus.

As music started the hearing, literature ended it. Announced in the flyer that promoted the event, a poet from Cubatão, Marcelo Ariel, participated in the hearing by reading one of his poems. His entire poetic work relies on his experience as a witness of that tragedy, the book he read from was Tratado dos Anjos Afogados, published in 2008.

Even as Vila Socó slowly disappeared from the news and the media, it, nevertheless, still lives on in the music and the literature. What has struck me the most is precisely that a commission who is supposedly looking for the truth, employs media that are commonly thought of as fictive to sustain its claims. The meaning of truth then becomes blurry, as it should be, not belonging anymore only to the sphere of the law but also to the one of the arts, together with the idea of justice.

Giulia Ricco



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